An open letter of thanks to my Ashtanga teacher

Thanks, Jörgen Christiansson.

That’s the simple message I have today, following my last Mysore practice before the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence.

Some of you might recall that I was expecting February not to be a very good month of prepping for the Confluence. Lots of travel plus not a clear calendar to devote much time on the mat was going to equal a raggedy practice come Friday.

It didn’t work out that way at all.

On Monday, I emailed a friend (who is going to the Confluence) that I am not afraid of anything that is going to happen this weekend. Richard Freeman’s backbending clinic? Piece of cake. David Swenson’s flying workshop? When’s departure? Tim Miller’s teacher shakti, which always demands your A game? Bring it on.

Because for the past month, Jörgen has been stretching me, sitting on me, pulling on me, twisting me and taking me right to my limit and then redefining my limit.

Jörgen, via Omkar 108.

Honestly, my only worry is that my newfound exuberance for dropbacks will put me before someone who isn’t expecting to have to carry so much of my weight and – kablam! – down I’ll go. I don’t worry about that with Jörgen.

This is all a result of a conversation Bobbie had with Jörgen about four weeks ago, when I was trying to determine if I’d even have enough free mornings to make it to Omkar 108 all month. I don’t know exactly what they talked about, but the result was this agreement: We’d work extra hard on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays, including Jörgen’s getting to the shala early on Monday and Thursday. I think it was unsaid, but understood, that in the short-term we were building toward the Confluence.

I didn’t know what I was in for.

There have been moments that were excruciating. I knew that would be so, but I don’t know that I really expected as many adjustments, as consistently and as strongly. My expectations have gone from assuming an eight-breath adjustment to maybe one that’s 20 breaths long. And I’ve come to expect that if I get one adjustment in a Prasarita or a Marichyasana another still could be coming. I’ve had adjustments in all four Prasaritas more than once.

It takes it out of you. The practices have left me pretty wiped out more than a few times. But, today, I noticed a little more flying back in my pull backs, a little more lightness in my jump throughs. There’s more strength there, I think. (I’m still processing this, actually.)

But it’s more than that. (Isn’t it always?) It isn’t just physical things, it isn’t just the “new normal” of sore hamstrings, hips, shoulders and, today, rib cage – or something around my rib cage. I don’t have enough perspective yet to list everything I’ve learned over the past month, but I do know I’ve learned the following lessons:

  • The importance of a teacher. I knew this one already, as I suspect everyone attending the Confluence does. But this month has been the most dynamic and dramatic “yoga student – yoga teacher” experience I’ve had for anything beyond a week. (And even then, I’m not sure it’s been matched.) I wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far without Jörgen’s presence. I know the “teacher question” is one that fairly often comes up in yoga blogs. I can say that, perhaps simply because of my inherent stiffness, I’m not one who could advance in this practice without the real-life assistance. Plus, there’s the inherent encouragement – sometimes very concrete, in the form of a “good” or some other encouragement – that comes from the human contact.
  • Trust. As noted above, I think within a few days I’ve given in completely to Jörgen’s dropback assistance. Keep in mind, I’m not seeing the floor yet, and so I am relying on him a lot to keep my from crashing to the floor. But there’s also the trust in all those incredibly (I think) intense stretches, where my hamstring or other muscle is ready to twang. Going deeper and breathing deeper into a Marichyasana A pose does not come naturally. But it is coming more naturally, shall we say.
  • That the practice works. This might seem like a dumb lesson to be learning now, but there you have it. Again, I’m not just talking about the fact that I can, at times, touch my toes with legs straight for the first time in memory. I’m talking about that my focus on dristis has deepened. My bandhas are more often engaged. My breathing – I think – has become deeper, fuller, more regulated. I don’t think there was any overt talk of any of these. But they’ve happened. (Watch, now I’ve jinxed myself for this weekend and I will have the full mad monkey mind the whole Confluence.)
  • That I, maybe, can do it. Guruji said some version of this: “Old man, stiff man, weak man, sick man, they can all take practice but only a lazy man can’t take practice.” I don’t know that I really believed that stiff men could. There are a lot of roadblocks of simple anatomy. But a steady backbend seems possible. Getting my body down on my legs in a forward fold seems possible (still, maybe, unlikely). Supta Kurmasana? It will happen. Just how did this change in mindset happen, though?

The answer to that question you all know: Practice. “Practice and all is coming.” So, for all the early mornings and all the extra time, the extra adjustments, the extra attention and these new lessons: Thanks, Jörgen.

Today, as I was leaving Omkar, Jörgen wished me a good time this weekend, we talked about a few other things and we ended by his saying: “We’re not finished. Spring and summer are coming. Opening up times. Wait to see where you are at the end of summer.”

With Jörgen’s help, I know I’ll be much further advanced, on a whole range of levels. Not that the path there will be easy.

And I’m ready for the Confluence.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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